Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Termination of Parental Rights in Chattanooga, Tennessee: In re Gabriella D.

Facts: Mother and Father are the parents of three children.

After one child was found to be severely malnourished, i.e.,  starving, all three children were removed from their parents’ custody and placed in foster care.

The rest of the facts can be found in my earlier post on the 2-1 decision from the Court of Appeals. You should go back and read that if you have a few minutes. The gist is that the foster parents grew attached to the children, Mother got her act together, and the children lived “incident free” in Mother’s care for two years.

The foster parents petitioned to terminate Mother and Father’s parental rights so they could adopt the children.

Grounds were not an issue. Clear and convincing evidence established grounds of severe abuse because of undernourishment.

The issue was whether terminating the parents’ parental rights was in the children’s best interest.

The trial court found it was not.

A divided Court of Appeals found it was.

On Appeal: The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.

A party seeking to terminate parental rights in Tennessee must prove two elements by clear and convincing evidence: (1) at least one statutory ground for termination exists, and (2) that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.

When considering the child’s best interest, Tennessee courts must consider nine nonexclusive statutory factors listed in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(i).

The underlying facts considered in the best-interest analysis must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, not by clear and convincing evidence.

After making factual findings, courts must then consider the combined weight of those facts to determine whether they amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the child’s best interest. When conducting this analysis, courts must remember that the child’s best interests are viewed from the child’s perspective rather than the parent’s.

Ascertaining a child’s best interest involves more than a rote examination of the statutory factors. It consists of more than tallying the number of statutory factors that weigh in favor of or against termination. Instead, the best-interest analysis is a factually intensive undertaking that ensures that every parent receives individualized consideration before their parental rights are terminated.

The Supreme Court determined the evidence in this case did not rise to the level required to terminate parental rights:

Having carefully reviewed the record, we conclude that the Court of Appeals erred by reversing the trial court’s determination that the combined weight of the facts does not amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the children’s best interests. We begin by agreeing with the Court of Appeals that Mother’s parenting skills were essentially nonexistent in the years before the children were removed from her custody . . . . During this time, Mother’s energies and efforts were focused much more on abusing drugs and continuing her abusive and toxic relationship with Father than on parenting her children. The combined weight of the factual evidence very clearly and convincingly established that Mother’s neglect, exacerbated by drug abuse, resulted in [Child]’s severe abuse.

Nevertheless, the proof offered at trial also establishes that not all parental misconduct is irredeemable. . . . The record on appeal, evaluated in its entirety, simply does not contain clear and convincing evidence establishing that termination is in the children’s best interests. Rather, the combined weight of the factual proof comes much closer to amounting to clear and convincing evidence of just the opposite conclusion—that termination is not in the children’s best interests.

After summarizing its analysis of the statutory best-interest factors, the Court explained:

[A]lmost all of the statutory factors, evaluated in the context of this case, weigh heavily against finding that terminating Mother’s parental rights is in the best interests of the children. In reversing the trial court and holding that the proof amounts to clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the children’s best interests, the Court of Appeals erroneously placed outcome-determinative weight on statutory factor six [which deals with whether the parent has abused the child], and more specifically, on the proof regarding Mother’s severe neglect of the children in the past.

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To be sure, the risk remains that Mother may abandon her many positive achievements—all too rare in parental-termination proceedings—return to Father, and resume abusing drugs after DCS is no longer involved. Given the circumstances these children have already endured and the testimony indicating that they could again suffer substantial harm should Mother relapse, the Court of Appeals properly considered this risk when conducting the best-interests analysis. Yet, the risk that Mother may relapse is a possibility only and does not amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the best interests of these children.

Based on the proof in this record, Mother has achieved a rare accomplishment for parental-termination proceedings. She has separated herself from a person who was long an abusive and toxic influence in her life. She has cooperated with DCS and completed all the tasks the permanency plan required of her. She has obtained treatment for a longstanding drug addiction and has remained drug free, as drug screens have demonstrated, for years after completing treatment. She has reestablished relationships with her children and built a strong family support system for herself and the children. The children have thrived in Mother’s care and wish to remain with Mother. The expert witnesses and DCS witnesses opined that removing the children from Mother would not be in their best interests. The Juvenile Court opined that the children should remain with Mother. Considering the record as a whole, we conclude that the trial court correctly held that the combined weight of the proof does not amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the best interests of the children. . . . [T]his is an unusual case. Too often parents fail to rehabilitate themselves and make the changes needed to avoid losing their parental rights forever. The proof in this record establishes that Mother has been able to make the necessary adjustments. This is precisely how the system is designed to function.

And with that, the termination of Mother’s parental rights was reversed.

K.O.’s Comment: It’s good for parents to know that if they actually follow through and do what courts ask of them—which can be a lot—then the courts will support them. Rehabilitation is possible. I hope lawyers can use this case to motivate their clients.

In re Gabriella D.  (Tennessee Supreme Court, September 29, 2017).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

2 thoughts on “Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Termination of Parental Rights in Chattanooga, Tennessee: In re Gabriella D.

  1. I couldn’t agree more! As someone who has worked with kids in this very situation, it is often hard to see the parents in a positive light and hope they get their act together, considering the abuse the child has suffered. But we need to encourage these parents to do what they need to do to become the parents the kids need. What could be a better ending than to have the parents realize their mistakes, make ammends, clean up their act, and love and care for their children as they should have? The foster system should be a temporary, nurturing place for children to be until their own parents get it together. I know often it doesn’t happen that way but I definitely think we should keep encouraging the parents instead of immediately writing them off.

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